Connecticut College Says Student Who Died During Pancake Contest Was at Fault

By Zachary Stieber

The 20-year-old who choked to death while engaging in a pancake eating contest was at fault for her own death, the university said a new filing.

A lawyer for Sacred Heart University said that the lawsuit filed by the family of Caitlin Nelson “fails to state a claim upon which relief may be granted.”

James Sconzo, the lawyer, said in a response made public on March 13 (pdf) that if anyone is to blame, it’s Nelson.

Her “injuries and damages were caused in whole or in part by Caitlin Nelson’s own carelessness and negligence,” the filing stated.

It also said that Nelson should have investigated techniques to use during the contest in addition to the risks of competitive eating, including the technique known as “chipmunking.”

According to the Food Challenges blog, “chipmunking … refers to filling your mouth so completely full with food that your cheeks bulge out and make you look like a chipmunk (hence the term). This especially happens during the last few seconds of an eating contest, since eaters typically are allowed around thirty seconds once time expires to finish and swallow all the food still remaining in their mouth. The food is basically sitting there waiting to be chewed and finally swallowed.”

The university said in the filing that it did have medical personnel at the contest but didn’t elaborate in the filing.

“Sacred Heart denies that any injuries Caitlin Nelson suffered were the direct and proximate result of any of Sacred Heart’s alleged actions or inactions and further denies that it was careless or negligent,” the university added in the suit.

“The Sacred Heart community continues to mourn the loss of Caitlin Nelson,” a spokeswoman added in an email to the Connecticut Post. “Beyond that, we are unable to comment on ongoing litigation.”

Her family has not responded to the new filing.

Nelson’s family filed a lawsuit against Sacred Heart on Oct. 29, 2018.

The suit sought damages in excess of $15,000 in addition to trying to expose the dangers of amateur eating contests.

“These contests are significantly more dangerous than people realize and it’s critically important for the public—especially educational institutions—to understand that certain foods are safer than others and a modicum of forethought can literally save lives,” Rosanne Nelson’s lawyer Katie Mesner-Hage told the Hartford Courant at the time, recommending softer foods like ice cream for contests.

Choked to Death

Nelson began choking during the contest and a nursing student soon recognized what was happening.

“She starts to choke on a pancake and someone recognized it—one of the nursing students at the competition—and she caught her and brought her slowly to the ground,” Fairfield Police Lt. Robert Kalamaras told the New York Post. “And then she began CPR, basic life support, until officers showed up less than two minutes after the emergency call was made by one of the nursing students.”

Fairfield police officers and medics, though, weren’t able to clear her mouth and throat for an extended period of time.

Responding officers described the mass of pancake paste in her mouth and throat “like concrete,” according to the lawsuit, reported The Associated Press. They finally cleared the passageway but she had suffered significant brain damage and died three days later.

An autopsy concluded she died of asphyxia due to obstruction of her airway.

The lawsuit alleges Sacred Heart approved the contest and use of pancakes and also failed to have medical personnel on site in case of an emergency.

Students at the contest were holding food in their cheeks, a practice known as “chipmunking,” which can be hazardous, the complaint said. Nelson didn’t have experience in speed eating contests and began stuffing her mouth when the contest began.